Creating change from within the belly of the beast

So you want to green up your organization

Within any large organization, from corporations to government bodies, there is inertia. Status quo. There are also many frustrated, brilliant people who want to see change, innovation. They want to see business as a force for good, not just as a force for ‘less bad’. This blog is for those people.

Some organizations are able to innovate, turn stagnant business models into a force for forward-thinking leadership. Xerox’s pioneering remanufacturing  model, where they started seeing photocopying as a service rather than a product, is one example that comes to mind. Others aren’t able to innovate and they die (let’s have a moment of silence for the hummer). But how do you know which kind of organization you work for?

From my experience working with large organizations on internal change, here’s how to tell if you stand a chance:

Is there leadership buy-in and support?

What do the top dogs think? Are they open to change? Do they appreciate green ideas? Even if they’re working within profit constraints and can’t necessarily implement brilliant resource-saving ideas, are they excited about moving in this direction? Without at least one bigwig ally, the best initiatives and ideas are more likely than not dead in the water.

Is there an obvious tie-in with your strategic direction?

If you can point to the direction your organization is looking to go and very clearly articulate where a sustainability lens will help, then you’ve got a good leg to stand on. Regulation is also a shoo-in: if you’ve got emissions reductions targets to meet, then serious brownie points to the members of staff who figure out how to do this in a way that’s best for business.

If you went looking for allies do you think you’d find them?

Are there other eco-warriors in your organization, perhaps at the next cubicle over or on the third floor in the accounting department? Real change needs support from all levels within an organization so you’ll need to find yourself a wealth of champions to have a chance at success. Find likely and unlikely allies. Of course include facilities and Environmental Health and Safety staff but also include the receptionist who’s passionate about car-sharing and the marketing person who wants to see a product packaging revolution.

Can you identify some low hanging fruit?

In order to get others on board, a few early, easy victories are massively helpful. If one switch still turns on your whole buildings’ lighting or your recycling system is a mess, you’ve got the chance to get a few easy successes under your belt & amass wider support before moving on to harder challenges.

Are you an unreasonable optimist?

A really unreasonable optimist? People say that being an entrepreneur is difficult. Not to knock those who strike out on their own, but in my opinion being an intrapraneur – someone creating change from within – can be even more difficult.

Much like an entrepreneur, you’ll often feel alone and you’re forging a new path, but as an added bonus you’ll sometimes find yourself swimming against the current of status quo and business as usual. So if the idea of being a salmon swimming upstream, fighting a fierce current the whole way, is an exciting challenge for you, I say go forth and make change from the inside! Otherwise, it’s better to focus on cubicle decor and updating your CV.

If you think you’ve got a pretty good chance of success, then it’s time to start casting your eye around for the early champions who’ll throw in their lot with you. Next step, start planning how you’ll make your case to the powers that be – it’s crucial that you think this through and find the right approach and the right moment.

This blog is the first in a series about influencing sustainability from inside large organizations. Next up – how to go about it.


Green jobs in action: Clean Energy Works Oregon

Cross-posted from the East London Green Jobs Alliance as part of a green jobs inspiration series

Recently I got to meet one of the Clean Energy Works Oregon committee members, Barbara Byrd, when she spoke at the Green Jobs BC conference. I was really inspired by her experiences building local alliances and by the success of a pilot programme that’s now in its third year.

Clean Energy Works was established in 2009 as a Portland-based pilot, testing out ways to encourage the growth of green and decent jobs by developing the home weatherization and retrofit market. The founders wanted to promote social inclusion and reducing carbon emissions at the same time by bringing together homeowners with local contractors, lenders and utilities so they could easily upgrade their homes for energy efficiency. It was created through a unique financing model that makes efficiency upgrades more accessible to homeowners by helping them get private loans to carry out the work, which is then repaid with the savings on their energy bills. In 2011, the programme secured funding expanded to all of Oregon. Two years in, they’ve retrofitted 2,000 homes out of a possible 500,000 statewide in need of efficiency upgrades and employed almost 900 people, including 240 new jobs in construction.

Putting social justice at the forefront

A key part of their strategy has been something they call the High Road Standards and Benefits, a set of benchmarks for including people who’ve been historically left out of economic development. Now that the Green Deal has been launched in the UK, the High Road strategy is an interesting counterpoint.

High Road aims to to change the demographic makeup of workers and businesses while also increasing pay and benefits standards across the industry. Some of the standards are requirements for any contractors participating in the scheme – for example health insurance must be provided and wages must be at a certain level – and others are incentivized. Contractors that meet High Road Standards get more customer referrals, on-the-job training wage subsidies for new workers, and training scholarships for workers. Clean Energy Works also provides business and marketing support to their contractors.

Key components:

  • 30% of all hours worked by historically underrepresented or economically disadvantaged people (ethnic minorities, women, low-income residents, past offenders, veterans)
  • 20% of project funds going to businesses owned by disadvantaged or underrepresented people
  • 80% of workers are local residents
  • Living wages (at least 180% of minimum wage)
  • Health care coverage (needed in America)
  • For people coming into the industry or ready for a promotion, resources are available > education, certification, career pathways
  • Contractors to hire at least the first 50% of workforce needed for each project from agreed training programmes.

Why it works

  • High profile champion from the start: The Mayor of Portland, Sam Adams, convened the first roundtable meeting and continued to support the project as it developed.
  • Clear financing mechanisms: By securing initial investment from the US government’s Recovery and Reinvestment Fund, they were able to capitalize a community load straight away.
  • All parties at the table: Although building alliances with unlikely bedfellows is never easy,Clean Energy Works saw the necessity of working together across employers, trade unions, environmental organisations and community stakeholders. Although a few partners have got fed up and walked away, most see the value in the work they’re doing together and are committed to making their alliance work.
  • Leverage with employers: Because certified contractors needed to demonstrate a commitment to the High Road Standards if they wanted to participate in the scheme, buy-in from the start to the programme’s social justice goals was embedded from the start.


  • Maintaining the diversity of contractors: When they scaled up and went statewide, the number of minority & woman-owned business involvement in the program fell. They attribute this to challenges small businesses faced with marketing, and the simple fact that there are less minority & women-owned contractors in non-urban areas.
  • Engaging more diverse customers: Even though the home improvements are relatively affordable, there wasn’t much take-up from low to moderate income households. To address this, they’re planning on putting more effort into marketing and are working on a structure that will allow rental and low income households to participate too. They have also identified a need for multilingual project information.
  • Legal issues around hiring: Although the High Road targets specified a certain percentage of women and ethnic minorities be hired for each job, in the end legal issues blocked them from becoming binding. Instead, the targets are now aspirational, with incentives given to contractors who meet or exceed them. Clean Energy Works is helping to develop a diverse pool of work-ready talent by recruiting for training programmes through local commmunity-based organisations.
  • Translation from cities to smaller communities: The pilot project standards (set in an urban environment) had to be adapted for statewide expansion to make sense for smaller communities, where there are different ideas about labour unions, appropriate wage levels and workforce standards.
  • Need for a long-term funding strategy: Coordination and project development takes time and capacity, especially when working with diverse alliances on innovative ideas. Although the actual project’s business model has been proven, they still need to find a way to support core program costs over the long run.
  • Scaling up: The pace of retrofits has been slightly below target – they are currently 2,000 homes and 2 years into a 3 year 6,000 home project, which means they’ll need to ramp up significantly in 2013 to meet their targets. Barbara attributes much of this to the general recession (unemployment is hovering around 8% in Oregon). In addition, power is relatively cheap in the Pacific Northwest, since much of it comes from hydropower, reducing the appetite for home efficiency upgrades. Kelly Haines, the organisation’s Workforce Specialist, is more optimistic, commenting that “It has been the overall complexities that come with building any new program: getting all the pieces in place…and we are now reaching a level of maturity with our processes that we can deliver more in less time. Every month, our volume of applications and completed projects increases in a j-curve fashion”. Neither Barbara nor Kelly see the High Road Standards as a hindrance to programme growth.

Building diverse alliances

And lastly, here are some tips from the incredibly wise Barbara Byrd on building alliances with unlikely bedfellows:

  • Choose your potential allies carefully. Who else has a stake in the issue? What kind of capacity (staff, financial, political clout, etc.) will they bring to the alliance? What’s their history of working with others?
  • Have ground rules – decide how decisions will be made (consensus is best, if you can get there); decide how you’ll handle situations where agreement isn’t possible; agree not to criticize other organizations in the alliance publicly; etc.
  • Build relationships one-on-one. It’s really important for the stakeholders to get to know each other personally, to learn more about each other’s organizations, to find as much common ground and mutual respect as possible. When the tough issues arise, as they always do, strong personal relationships can hold the alliance together past organizational conflict.
  • Work toward short-term win’s and celebrate them together.
  • Try to make sure that everyone gets a win sometime – look out for each other’s interests.
  • Bring in new allies from time to time, as issues evolve and situations change.
  • Don’t get discouraged – depending on the issues you’re tackling, the work can be really hard. It takes time to build strong alliances, so hang in there!

Further reading:

The f-word: on failing forwards

Engineers Without Borders bravely kick-started a much-needed conversation when they created their first Annual Failure Report in 2008, followed by the launch of the Admitting Failure website in 2011. Since then the conversation has been opening up, propelled by some interesting initiatives like failcamp and a couple of great failure-themed Ted talks, but, at least in my humble opinion, not nearly fast enough or wide enough.

The word ‘failure’ still causes a deep, uncomfortable cringe in most of us, with the result that too many individuals and organizations are trying to bury our mistakes and missteps deep underground instead of inviting them out into the light to take a good, hard look and learn some much-needed lessons.

Why failure is a good thing

Social change is a messy process. Why in the world do any of us think we’re going to get it right the first time? Putting these unbelievable expectations on ourselves doesn’t just weigh heavily on us (contributing to stress and burnout) but it’s not helpful for the process of innovation. New ideas need to be tested, refined, tested again, refined, tested again …. you get the picture. This iterative model necessarily involves talking about what isn’t working.

Recently I read a great story about Sara Blakely (the entrepreneur who invented Spanx), shared in this Forbes article, about how Sara’s father asked her every day “what did you fail at today?” and expected an answer. The lesson here is that everyone who’s trying hard enough is also getting it wrong sometimes.

Why are we selfishly keeping our failures to ourselves?

So we need to get okay with being unsuccessful sometimes. We also need to start talking and sharing. The world needs to know about your ideas that have fallen flat – otherwise some other organization is going to try the same thing and waste their time, energy and money on something that you know full well won’t work. If they knew what you knew, they could use your failure as a starting point and have a much better chance of success.

In the game of making the world a bit better than it was the day before, whether that means averting catastrophic climate change, fighting for social justice or revitalizing local communities, when one idea wins, we all win. Sharing our successes and – crucially – our failures is the very best way to speed up this process of social change.

Creative destruction – failure as a natural process

Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet social entrepreneur and ‘conscious closure’ expert Vanessa Reid at an Art of Hosting training in England. Vanessa’s led amazing organizations like Santropol Roulant through times of change and transition, and she’s also become a bit of an accidental expert in knowing when it’s time for a project or idea to come to an end so that something else can take its place. This idea of creative destruction is really powerful.

In a workshop, Vanessa talked about the Ecocycle model, which uses the natural cycles of a forest to illustrate the phases that organizations, projects and campaigns go through. There is a part of the cycle called creative destruction, where old ideas die so that new ones can be born. Much like certain seeds that only germinate within the intense heat of forest fires and plants that only grow in ash-rich soil, some ideas and projects will never be able to flourish until others have created space. The beauty of this place of destruction and renewal is that it’s where so much useful learning happens. Failure is only disastrous if we don’t learn from it – as individuals, within our organizations, and throughout the whole systems we work within.

How to fail well

One of my favourite reads on the EWB website is Four Ideas for Failing Successfully. You should read the whole article because it’s great, but here are the core nuggets of the argument:

  1. In complex systems failure is often unavoidable. Set the expectation with your funders, staff, partners and other stakeholders that learning from failure is a part of the work. Say it explicitly.
  2. Become accountable to your beneficiaries, not your funders. This will make it easier to admit and share your failures.
  3. Fail fast and fail cheap. Prototyping is way less risky than rolling out a big, fat, expensive flop.
  4. Take responsibility your own failures. If you spend time pointing the finger to external factors, you won’t get the chance to learn what you could have done differently.

And some more great reads on failure (in case you just can’t get enough):

So what are you waiting for? Go forth and fail! And then come back and tell us all about it.

Reading list: collaborative leadership

Here are a few great articles I’ve read recently on different models of leadership that follow the tenet ‘the responsibility of a leader is to create more leaders’, instead of thinking about a leader as someone who’s always at the front of the pack, making decisions & admitting no wrong.

  • Leadership in the age of complexity: moving from leader as hero to leader as host. This 2002 interview with Margaret Wheatley is also an interesting read.
  • On humility and being wrong: a great Forbes piece on finding a more authentic kind of leadership, where everyone at every level in an organization is a leader, and where total honesty is crucial
  • Do you want the good news first? Thomas Friedman on how to be a great leader, you “‘have to think of yourself not as a designer but as a gardener” — seeding, nurturing, inspiring, cultivating the ideas coming from below, and then making sure people execute them’.

And a couple nice little examples of collective leadership in action:

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